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The Future of Urban Populism: Will Cities Turn the Political Tides?

America’s cities are the key vectors for progressive change in the next decade. Most large cities contain a majority non-white population with a hunger for change. Young white progressives are also flocking to cities searching for economic opportunity in emerging (knowledge, digital, sustainable) urban economies, and seeking greater cultural diversity and a greener lifestyle (not stuck in traffic for hours every day). Together, these two demographic forces—young and of color—could rapidly become politically dominant in the nation. Cities were the base for Obama’s two victories and will be the likely locus over the next decade for new policy ideas and experiments, and for progressive movements. These demographic trends will cause clashes at every step; rural America and traditionally white suburbs are heading down a dangerous and destructive path of xenophobia and conservative nationalism (economic and political)—currently led by Donald Trump.

Cities are economic powerhouses. Over 85 percent of the nation’s Gross National Product (GDP) is generated in cities and their surrounding suburbs. And, currently over 80 percent of the nation’s largest cities are majority non-white—despite the fact that a majority of blacks and Latinos now live in suburbs. Of the young whites moving into cities, they are decidedly progressive. Barack Obama twice won the vote among young white residents in cities; he did far worse among young white voters in rural areas. Young white progressives along with black, Latino, and Asian urban voters were the core of the Obama coalition—and their numbers are only increasing—at a rapid rate—in cities. The takeaway is that the nations’ future economy will largely be shaped in urban areas, and those urban areas have great potential for progressive governance and experimentation. Labor unions in the U.S. have always been—acknowledged or not—an urban movement. If unions rebound in the future, it will likely continue to be in cities (and in surrounding urban areas).

Demographers and urban planners expect the total U.S. population to increase by nearly 80 million by 2040, up from 314 million today. By then the nation is projected to be majority non-white, and nearly a third immigrant, up from 22 percent today. The most numerous cohort of the population in 2040 will be millennials—those aged between 20-35 today. There are more than 65 million millenials in the U.S., outnumbering baby-boomers by about 5 million. Millennials are deferring marriage, having fewer children, and are better educated than previous generations, yet they are having a difficult time finding good jobs and are more in debt (due to the cost of education) than previous generations. This increasingly impoverished and unsettled group will be dominant politically by 2040.  Millennials were raised during the apex of free-market finance capitalism; they have felt its effects and a majority reject it. The Democratic Party leadership, and most of the labor movement, is now firmly to the right of most young Americans, most of whom have a favorable view of socialism. [1] Young Americans are far more active on social media (where radical ideas are easier to find) and less focused on traditional corporate media than their elders (including political elites). It is no wonder that Democratic Party and labor elites were caught by surprise by Bernie Sanders’ strong support among millennials. While there is no representative national organization giving voice to this progressive yearning among young people, a few mayoral candidates like Bill de Blasio sensed the leaning and rode it to victory. Many mayors will likely do the same in future elections, as there do not appear to be any economic “miracles” (asset bubbles) on the horizon that might moderate millennials or voters of color.

Economists expect 40 million additional jobs to be added to the economy by 2040, totaling over 180 million in the nation. Expectations are that most of those jobs will be in services such as health care, retail, education, and hospitality. Yet it is also expected that most of these jobs will be low paid, continuing existing trends of income inequality. Income inequality is not distributed evenly either by population or geography. While working class whites have suffered income stagnation and relative decline compared to the wealthiest Americans, most blacks (and similarly Latinos) never got a foothold in the American Dream. For them, the bottom has fallen out. This is visibly demonstrated in cities and parts of cities where poor blacks are concentrated (like Detroit or Baltimore).


Data on Income, Poverty, and Wealth by Race


Household Income (in 2010 Dollars)

              Black            White            Black % of White Median     

1950       12,835           23,657             54.25%

1970       27,337           44,565             61.34%

1980      28,439          49,150              57.86%

1990      31,027           53,464              58.03%

2000     38,174           60,112              63.50%

2010      32,068          57,752               55.53%

(U.S. Census, 2010)

This table provides data on income disparities by race that undergird the most serious problems facing cities.


Black median household income in 2010 was roughly 55 percent that of whites’, making it almost the same proportionally as it was in 1950. The black poverty rate in 2010, 27 percent, was almost the same in 1974 (30 percent). Since 1950, black Americans won civil rights legislation, are better integrated into social welfare programs, and since the early 1970s they elected more than 9,000 blacks to office—including many mayors (not to mention the current President of the United States). Yet, black Americans are in the same relative economic position (or perhaps worse) as they were in 1950. These sobering and alarming figures show that electing mayors and other representatives on the basis of their race or self-declared progressivism has not changed black economic status.  Local black activists and policymakers are desperate for fresh ideas, especially those focused on economic improvement, no matter how radical so long as potentially doable. Still, there is something like a Chinese wall separating (typically white-led and oriented) progressive policy think-tanks, the flourishing alternative worker-owner and sustainable business movements, and local activists of color. The latter do not want to know only about macro-policies like new green infrastructure programs—they want to know how unemployed young people in their communities will get good careers in this burgeoning area. Communities of color are not often thrilled about the organic Free Trade coffee shops opening up in former “ghettos”—while the inhabitants are being forced out by rents they cannot afford. They want business opportunities of their own that might allow them to stay in their homes. They are looking for plans and policies that address their issues—which are overlooked in conversations about economic development involving real money. Opposition to progressive policy change at the state and national legislative levels have proven to be formidable obstacles. But, the lack of a clear sense of program or direction for progressivism in the face of neo-liberal programs of privatization and globalization of production has been more crippling.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       The economic woes continue in the area of housing. Households making just under $10,000 a year paid an astounding 77.8 percent of their income for housing in 2005. Households making $25,000 paid nearly 40 percent of income for housing. These trends result both from the shrinking supply of affordable housing— over one million low-rent units (rent: $400 or less per month, including utilities) were lost between 1993 and 2003 alone—and the fact that many Americans, blacks in particular, are becoming poorer relative to white Americans. [2]

Housing as Percentage of Income

Income          Housing Cost As Share of Income

$9,676           77.8%

$25,546         39.9%

$42,622         31.3%

$67,813         24.8%

$147,737       19%

(Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005)

The table shows the percentage of pre-tax income different income groups paid for housing in 2005.


As bad as income differentials are, they do not capture the degree of disparity between black and white working families. Between 1984 and 2009 the racial wealth gap increased by nearly $150,000.


Black and White Family Wealth (2009 dollars)[3]

Year            Black                White

1984            $5,781               $90,851

2009           $28,500           $265,500

The table shows differences in family wealth broken down by race.


Viewing comparative data on income and wealth, it is easy to understand why large numbers of black and Latino families (Latinos have comparable wealth to blacks) are being forced to move from central cities that have become attractive to white millenials seeking good public transportation networks, cultural attractions, and close distances between home and work. As low-income people move to the suburbs, these suburbs have become poorer. Low-income blacks and Latinos also tend to be segregated into certain suburbs. As one researcher noted, “[t]he inability of minority populations in minority neighborhoods to secure credit and fixed-interest home loans, the steering of homebuyers and renters to certain neighborhoods based on their race or ethnicity, and the resistance of white residents to live in even less than fairly integrated neighborhoods results in the segregation of African American and other minorities into poor, declining suburbs.”[4] Growing minority concentration in declining suburbs opens possibilities for progressive regional political coalitions and policy initiatives (in areas such as public transportation) that have been virtually impossible with conservative domination of suburban politics. It paves the way for progressive gains in state houses that are crucial for inclusive and sustained urban progress.

In short, if present trends continue, the future for black and Latino communities is one of bad jobs, de facto racial segregation, and physical isolation in places lacking basic infrastructure and services. When one considers desultory economic prospects for white millennials, the urban future looks to be politically combustible.


The above indicates what is likely to happen if nothing major changes in terms of politics, public policy, or popular will. Yet change is very possible. There are already hundreds, if not thousands, of small initiatives underway in cities to disrupt or reverse these dominant negative trends. There are also many dozens of progressive mayors and city councils being elected all across the country. Even non-progressive mayors are trending pragmatically towards progressivism because of the changing demographics of cities—more of color and young millennials—and because the federal government has largely abandoned cities in terms of funding for urban programs. Labor unions figure prominently in some of these cities—the Bay Area, New York, and Seattle, to name a few—but the trend extends far beyond cities where labor is active. While a significant bottom-up progressive trend is underway, it cannot be called an urban “movement”: There is little solidarity or systematic learning between cities, and there is a dearth of collaboration about how to advance this trend politically or strategically.

Pro-Labor Cities

Mayors elected with strong labor support have helped raise the profile of worker issues, especially those addressing low-wage workers. When Bill de Blasio took office, all of New York City’s municipal workers had been working with expired contracts for years. Within six months, de Blasio’s administration negotiated contracts covering 60 percent of the workforce (today, 95 percent have contracts). The first settlement was with the United Federation of Teachers, who won 18 percent raises over 9 years.

New York City under Mayor Bill de Blasio has too many pro-labor, pro-working-class initiatives to list, much less describe in any detail. De Blasio initiated a universal pre-K program that put 40,000 additional four-year-olds in school—saving parents up to $15,000 per year in childcare costs. New York City expanded paid sick leave to 1.2 million workers lacking the benefit. New York City required businesses located in buildings receiving substantial city subsidies to raise the minimum wage from $11.90 to $13.13 an hour. The Mayor also expanded funding for tenants to fight evictions, leading to a 24 percent decrease in evictions between 2013 and 2015. [5] Despite these and other accomplishments, de Blasio has struggled over affordable housing and policing. His affordable housing plan seeks to create units affordable to families making 60 percent of median income, or $46,620 for a family of three. But, as the earlier tables suggested, many of de Blasio’s low-wage and especially black and Latino supporters cannot afford housing at this level, and some criticize the Mayor for not doing enough.

De Blasio has also had well publicized problems with the Police Benevolent Association over everything from Black Lives Matter to contract settlements. Much of this reflects tensions and politics within the police force. New York’s police force is composed of about half white officers, many whom live outside of the city. Their political orientations, like suburban white (male) workers generally, are more conservative than black and Latino officers that comprise most of the remaining force. The larger context is that progressive mayors nearly always find themselves in the middle of decades old conflicts between communities of color and police unions, or in conflicts between communities of color and fire departments (over discrimination in hiring), or in conflicts between construction unions wanting maximum wages and affordable housing developers attempting to keep home prices affordable to low-wage workers.

Other union-friendly cities have moved in similar directions as New York, and have struggled over similar issues. In April 2015, Seattle’s Mayor Edward Murray signed into law legislation moving the City’s minimum wage to $15/hour. The Mayor also introduced legislation to combat wage theft and other labor law violations, as well as to extend paid sick leave. But, Mayor Murray has also had a tenuous relationship with Seattle’s police and firefighters unions, and he has struggled to mediate tensions between the city’s minority communities and the police. In the Bay Area, the City of San Francisco implemented local hiring requirements on city construction projects that increased local resident hires from 20 percent to 38 percent in 2015.[6] In Richmond, California, a coalition called the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) spearheaded the election of a succession of progressive mayors and city councils. The city won some notoriety because of heavy spending by the Chevron Corporation ($3 million to defeat 3 progressive city council candidates in a city of 100,000) in a failed attempt to defeat progressive candidates. Yet in a typical pattern, the RPA, supported by Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the California Nurses Association, and other progressive unions, has faced opposition from the Building Trades, firefighters, and the police union, who aligned with the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.

It would be a misleading to isolate union-friendly cities from other cities moving in similar directions. The city of Burlington, Vermont, for example, under the pro-labor leadership of former Mayor Bernie Sanders, created a community land trust that undergirds permanent housing affordability for 2,500 families. (Community land trusts established for affordable housing typically lease land for housing development while placing income and resale restrictions on occupants, thereby maintaining housing affordability.) Now, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and other cities are following Burlington’s example. The city of Richmond, Virginia has established an Office of Community Wealth Building that works explicitly on creating good jobs for that city’s poorest residents. Pittsburgh and many others are moving in a similar direction to Richmond’s. Salt Lake City elected a progressive openly gay woman mayor, Jackie Biskuspki, last year. Cities such as Atlanta, Salt Lake, Indianapolis, Austin, and many others are bastions of rising progressivism even as their state governments have moved in an opposite direction. It would take a book, literally, to provide an overview of all of the progressive initiatives underway in cities—yet they are almost all small in scale and mostly unsupported by state and federal governments.

Our constitutional system has two features that limit cities. It provides only for national (federal) and state sovereignty—cities are sub-creatures of state constitutions, their powers defined by state legislatures. And, the power to make and fund policy is concentrated in legislatures—federal and state. On the other hand, city population density often provides them with significant power in state houses, which could be far stronger in coalition with struggling suburbs, even at the federal level. What cities lack is the progressive equivalent of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which develops and promotes conservative policies across the states.  By “progressive,” I do not only mean economically redistributive, but a policy operation that puts issues of racial inclusion at the center of its agenda. Such an approach could greatly amplify the power of cities almost immediately.

How Can We Build An Urban Movement?

Building solidarity among white workers, young white urban educated millennials, black, Latino, and Asian urban residents is THE major challenge in American politics. A common denominator approach, e.g., narrowly looking for purely economic issues that affect the 99 percent and attempting to unite across race on this basis, has not ever been sustained in American history.  This approach has deep roots in Marxism and American sociology, both of which usually adopt simplistic formulations of class and workers’ interests that give short shrift to things like state repression, racial segregation, and culture. Another key obstacle to coalescing in municipal areas has been the micropolitics of representation and fundraising. Government officials and labor leaders are both elected officials, usually more concerned with their own elections (or their own membership rolls) than larger movement building or program development. Community leaders, in the wake of collapse of serious public funding for urban programs, compete in fundraising from foundations and tend to exaggerate their own “unique” role and effectiveness to appeal to funders. All of this makes a toxic stew for movement building—how to move out of this requires a more lengthy discussion than possible here. A positive step in addressing these problems might be to simply highlight the need for renewed conversations about race and capitalism, and about ego-centrism and infighting among worker and community leaders and organizations, as problems that need to be confronted with the introduction of different models for organizing, leadership development, revenue generation, and accountability.

We recently saw problems with the common denominator approach during Bernie Sanders’ largely unsuccessful attempt to win black support during the 2016 Democratic primary. Why didn’t it work? Because problems faced by black workers and communities historically have never been solely economic, or even mainly economic; they have as much to do with state repression and racist culture as with economic issues. Their problems are significantly not common across race—a point Bernie had trouble with. To not address their particular issues upfront is to miss the boat. For example, increasing wages does not mean too much for large numbers of blacks excluded from employment because of their criminalized status; free college tuition does not speak to the large numbers of blacks (a majority of black men, and many black women) who never make it to any kind of college.  For Latinos, and Asian Americans, immigration and deportations are key issues. An inclusive program to unite all these groups should be the focus of thinking about how to build an urban movement.

Another important political issue is organizing the outer ring suburbs that are home to a majority of blacks and Latinos in the nation, and often have higher concentrations of poverty and worse fiscal problems than central cities. Organizing small struggling suburban cities into a political force will need to be a major component of fighting for control of state governments in the coming decade. There aren’t many examples of such coalitions in racially diverse regions. But there are many examples of emerging regional coalitions in states like Georgia, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina. In Pennsylvania, for example, cities such as York, Allentown, Reading, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Harrisburg are rising in importance and increasingly ally with traditional Democratic bastions Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in state politics.

A second major task is to learn how to utilize victories in city election campaigns to spur deeper economic change. While helping low-wage workers and establishing better city worker contracts are important, cities can do far more. Some city regimes are beginning to recognize, for example, that competing with other cities on who can offer the lowest taxes to attract firms to relocate to their city is a losing proposition, and they are shifting to building on what they already have. Cities with expanding employment such as Boston, Austin, or the Bay Area are growing because they house first-class research universities training highly skilled scientists, engineers, and other skilled workers. And, these more successful cities are making investments in worker training, and strategic investments in green, worker-friendly businesses, and in improving urban livability. The basic idea is to shape markets and places rather than simply respond to the demands of corporations, or only bargaining for a piece of the pie that the private sector cooks.

Cities can exercise great power in markets, and in some sectors they already do. Cities have lots of influence in housing, energy, transportation, buildings, purchasing (manufactured goods), health care, water and sewer systems. Cities can exercise tremendous pressure on these industries, and significantly transform them, including transitions to worker ownership in these sectors, if they so choose. Cities, and public-worker pensions, are also major players in financial markets—although unions and public-fund managers rarely exercise the kind of leadership they could in steering capital in progressive directions. There is a critical need for systematic exploration of market opportunities and progressive experiments going on in cities.

This strategy is especially needed to take advantage of opportunities emerging due to digital technology and climate change—both of which will fundamentally reshape cities in coming decades in everything from infrastructure to education. [7]   Rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure could create quality union or worker coop (or both) jobs for a whole generation of young people, and would also make for a far more effective economy.

Similarly, the true impact of the computer transformation is just beginning, and it will radically change our economy—potentially in positively revolutionary pro-worker directions. [8]   For instance, some cities and businesses are beginning to see possibilities in rebuilding infrastructure by using digital “brainpower” in ways that save billions of dollars in development costs, reduce spending on energy and other key resources, and create high-tech twenty-first century “blue-collar” job equivalents. Because these systems can potentially save so much in efficiency, there are resources available to pay for job training/up-skilling and decent wages plus benefits to maintain them. These changes could be how the digital economy rolls out: developing career pathways for inner-city young people into promising well-paid, higher-skill jobs. Perhaps the greatest example to date was the $7 billion Los Angeles school modernization project that employed 66 percent minority workers (averaging over $30/hour) and allocated $200 million in contracts to small firms (85 percent of which were minority-owned businesses. [9]

Yet all too often, labor unions and community organizations are not planning to shape the future economy; they leave traditional businesses an open field. The City of Chicago, for example, in an initiative headed by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, has created the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute. Its board consists of Fortune 500 CEOs and no labor or community representatives whatsoever. The Institute’s mission statement declares that it is, “. . . addressing problems too big for any one organization to solve on its own. The challenges we are addressing in manufacturing and smart cities are at the intersection of digital convergence: computing, big data, and the Internet of Things (IOT).”[10] The initiative received $70 million from the Department of Defense from the Obama administration, and raised $250 million from the City of Chicago, businesses, and local universities. The initiative acknowledges that the future is uncertain and that businesses need to collaborate to shape the economic future together (meaning among themselves). It would be a welcome sight if unions, progressive mayors, and community leaders adopted the same approach.

We are already living through the perils of municipal decline, where a handful of rich communities and a few cities prosper while the majority sinks and struggles to maintain physical safety, and minimum functionality in schools, hospitals, and infrastructure. It is an illusion to think that dying cities (like Detroit) can transform themselves without major lifts from the federal government. Structural reforms are also needed to actually tax the wealthy, and to redirect finance from speculating on things like currency valuations to long-term investments in inclusively designed projects that will enable cities to be globally competitive by building well-trained, well-supported, and flexible workforces operating in state-of-the-art cities and regions. The movement for these changes, and the ideas and models that inspire them, will not start in Washington but must being in the cities themselves, and in the struggling suburbs that surround them.



1] Ekins, E. (2016). Millennials Like Socialism–Until They Get Jobs. Washington Post. Washington, D.C., Washington Post.

[2] Hanlon, B. (2008). “The decline of older, inner suburbs in metropolitan America.” Housing Policy Debate 19(3): 423-439.


[3] Thomas Shapiro, et. al., “The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide,” Institute on Assets and Social Policy, (February 2013).

[4] Hanlon, B. (2008). “The decline of older, inner suburbs in metropolitan America.” Housing Policy Debate 19(3): 423-439.

[5] Justice, N. Y. O. O. C. (2016). Annual Report. https:// www.scribd.com/document/322577996/OCJ-2016-Annual-.

[6] Collaborative, E. C. (2016). San Francisco’s 5-Year-Old Local Hire Policy a Huge Success. http://emeraldcities.org/media/ news/san-franciscos-5-year-old-local-hire-policy-a-huge-success.

[7] Anderson, C. (2012). Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. New York, Crown Publishing Group.

[8] Moulier, B. Y. (2011). Cognitive Capitalism. Malden, Ma., Polity.

[9] Collaborative, E. C. (2016). San Francisco’s 5-Year-Old Local Hire Policy a Huge Success. http://emeraldcities.org/media/ news/san-franciscos-5-year-old-local-hire-policy-a-huge-success.

[10] See http://dmdii.uilabs.org/.

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